pediatric mental health

Pandemic Recovery for Kids: Handling Stress at Home, School, & Play

Pediatricians’ strategies to support kids’ health during the pandemic ranged from telemedicine to drive-thru clinics to virtual parenting classes. As the response to the pandemic has shifted and vaccines for adults and children become more available, post-pandemic life approaches. Pediatricians have the opportunity to triage potential problems and support kids as families return to a new normal, and to cope with the rise of new or worsening mood disorders and anxieties as kids face more changes to their home, school, and social lives. In this post, we’ll cover obstacles kids may face during the transition to post-pandemic life, from separation anxiety to post-COVID conditions.

Help Families Handle Stress at Home, School, and Play

The transitions necessary for families were many during the pandemic. As communities adjust to new waves of vaccination and the reopening of schools and businesses to pre-pandemic policies, kids will need extra support. Pediatricians can help by anticipating obstacles -- for parents, teachers, and kids alike.

Separation Anxiety

It’s normal and expected for both kids and parents to feel nervous at being separated from one another, especially after months of social isolation. Whether a toddler is not a fan of her new preschool class or it’s dad or mom having a harder time during summer camp, pediatricians can help provide support during separation and other anxieties.

According to Erlanger "Earl" Turner, a child psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Pepperdine University speaking to NBC, kids look to caregivers to model behavior in new situations. Caregivers can try a gradual approach to separation, leaving for greater increments of time, and commending children on independent behavior. It’s also important to validate children’s anxieties and fears, and reassure them that there are adults to support them at their new location, whether it’s school or summer camp.

Parents may need support and reassurance too -- pediatricians are in a pivotal position to point out the developmental importance of independence for kids and the positives it offers families, like peace of mind, time for personal projects and health, and of course kids’ happiness and growth.

Education & Mental Health

While quality education is important at every stage of a child’s life, a focus on emotional, psychological, and social competency can get kids off to their best start in the new school year or during summer activities. The CDC recommends talking with kids about how school will be different, what expectations are, and has checklists for caregivers about preparing for virtual, hybrid, or in-person classes. Pediatric practices can check with their local school systems to be aware of their communities’ plans for safe schooling to both coordinate with educators and reassure families.

The CDC also lists many excellent resources for parents’ concerns around the new school year, from special education evaluation, resources for stress, and how to connect with early childhood educators to provide the extra support needed during this time of transition. Physicians can let parents know that their office also has support resources, from advice on special education needs to visual and hearing exams to resources for continued educational or mental health support.

According to the AAP, it is more important than ever for pediatricians to partner with caregivers, resource groups, and communities to support children’s mental health, and providing support via avenues such as telehealth is a way to get started. The AAP also notes that “appropriate allocation of resources is necessary to address the pandemic’s impacts, particularly for under-resourced communities, populations facing inequities, children and youths with special health care needs and children in child welfare and juvenile justice systems.”

Safe Activities During Pandemic Recovery

States are removing pandemic restrictions, but precautions are still a good idea for families, especially for children who aren’t yet vaccinated. Pediatricians counseling caregivers can often provide more individualized recommendations according to the family’s travel and social plans, vaccination status, and the patient’s history.

Speaking to Contemporary Pediatrics’ podcast Small Talk, Dr. Andrew Schumann, MD FAAP, gave his advice for families seeking to navigate safety measures with reopening communities in the United States. "To my knowledge, most states have removed emergency measures, so as long as we practice appropriate caution, we should go forward and enjoy the outdoors. The CDC recommends that as long as we're in uncrowded environments outdoors, we can go unmasked.”

Dr. Schumann continued, “One needs to use some judgement regarding indoor activities considering the ventilation of a room, how many people are in the room, how many people are vaccinated. It comes down to how trustful you are of other people being responsible, and how crowded the space is on any particular day. I think as long as we are cautious, people can resume normal activities — they can see movies, go to baseball games.

Clinical Support Resources 

While every child will experience a unique transition into post-pandemic life, some clinical measures to watch out for include new or exacerbated mental health and behavioral disorders, burnout, and common summer injuries like cuts or sun exposure. Depending on the locale, it will also be essential to separate children in the practice with cough, fever, or respiratory symptoms and follow the CDC and AAP’s interim guidance for treating children with post-COVID-19 symptoms. Here is a list of resources for pediatricians:

These resources will likely be updated as physicians learn more about kids’ needs and responses to COVID-19 vaccines, post-COVID conditions, and as communities reopen. For clinical guidance, please refer to the AAP or the CDC’s latest guidelines.

Balancing patients’ behavioral healthcare needs is more important than ever. Learn how your practice can integrate behavioral health at any budget with our ebook, which details the options open to pediatric practices to collaborate, refer, and even hire professionals versed in pediatric social work, psychological, and psychiatric care.

Integrating Behavioral Health:  A Guide to Expanding Access

Allie Squires

Allie Squires is PCC's Marketing Content Writer and a transplant from upstate New York. She holds a master's in Professional Writing from NYU.